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Guatemala the grave

Exhumation at Finca CovabongaWhen a famine is looming, the health care system is collapsing, the economy is on the edge of implosion, the justice system does not work, and the levels of corruption and social violence are astounding, it would be wrong to speak of a new crisis. This is a permanent state of crisis. So it is with the small Central American state of Guatemala, the original banana republic.

The history of Guatemala, and especially of its indigenous Mayan communities, from the time of the invasion by the Spanish conquistadores to the present day, is one of social exclusion, slavery, poverty and numerous attempts at genocide. Poor Ladinos do not fare much better. In Guatemala, the fusion and continuing reproduction of hierarchies of class and race are everywhere apparent.

The invasion and colonisation by the Spanish from the 16th to early 19th centuries laid the foundations for the ongoing crisis that is Guatemala. The Spanish saw Guatemala as a large quarry from which they extracted riches and shipped them back to Europe. When Independence came in 1821, the emerging ruling elites continued the colonial traditions of theft, racial hatred and military rule.

Although there have been moves in Guatemalan history — especially in the mid-20th century — to break from these traditions, they were soundly squashed by the emerging regional power in the area, the United States. The United Fruit Company, which in the 1950s and '60s owned around 70 per cent of arable land in Guatemala, still wields immense influence under a new name. If US corporations do not like what is happening in Guatemala, it will be stopped. They are willing to arm, support and train for genocide in order to defend their interests.

I write this article in a hotel in Nebaj, Quiche province, in the western highlands of Guatemala. It is part of the Ixil triangle, which is made up of the towns of Nebaj, Chojul and Cotzal. In the early 1980s there were some 200 massacres in this small mountainous area; 16,000 Mayans died; the population dropped by 23 per cent.

The architects of the policy were Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt. They and their officers were all trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, where they learned the  counter-insurgency techniques they put into practice.

A military campaign called Frijoles y Fusiles (Beans and Guns), gave villagers food. In return it forced all males between the ages of 14 and 65 into Civil Defense Patrols. These patrols were under the direct control of the military and were used to engage with the guerillas, who were strong and drew recruits from the area. The core of the strategy was to exterminate people who might support the guerillas. This they did.

Recently, I visited an exhumation of bodies at Finca Covabonga, which is part of the Ixil triangle. On 9 December 1982 the army turned up and the locals were told to assemble. In previous weeks there had been heavy fighting between the guerillas and the army, and many massacres had occurred in the surrounding area.

The assembled people were divided by gender; the men were sent to the church and the women to the school, which were then set alight. A few men were able to break out, some were shot dead and a few others were able to escape to the mountains. Seventy-five people were killed that day.

The people from the Centre for Forensic Analysis and Scientific Application (CAFTA) who carried out the exhumation were armed with spades, scrapers, trowels and cameras. They are archeologists of memory, piecing together the evidence of one of the most heinous crimes committed in last century.

In talking with them I asked if the evidence they gather ever leads to convictions. They replied that it did not. They added that not only is there impunity, Rios Montt, who was ousted in a coup in 1983, is still a senator, runs a major party and in 2003 tried to become president. Although he lost, he is still a major player in Guatemala.

The civil war that lasted for 36 years is over, but a new war began immediately. This is a narco war, with many of the same players as the previous war. It is creating immense wealth for a few, and sending out a tsunami of violence on the people of Guatemala. In Guatemala, things change so that they can stay exactly the same.

Colm McNaughtonColm McNaughton is a casual lecturer and freelance journalist currently travelling and working in Central Amerca. In 2008 he won a Walkley Award for his ABC Radio National documentary on trauma and the north of Ireland in Awakening From History?. Photo, Exhumation at Finca Covabonga, by Colm McNaughton.

Topic tags: guatemala, banana republic, mayan, Nebaj, Quiche, Chojul, Cotzal, Ixil triangle, Frijoles y Fusiles



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Existing comments

Colm, great to see this article from you and know what you are doing. I will take and read to Chris. Having been in Guatamela and been deeply affected, he will be very interested to hear.

Mary Nolan | 23 September 2009  

As an Amnesty International member, I have over the years heard too many such stories. Have you passed this info on to Amnesty? Their campaigns at least draw attention and protest from around the world.

mary ellen macdonald | 23 September 2009  

Horrific story, but thank you for getting it out. I recall the troubles in El Salvador and Nicaragua around that time, but had no idea this sort of systematic slaughter was going on in Guatemala. Are you also going to make a radio documentary on this? I enjoyed your N. Ireland one - though 'enjoy' is not quite the word. 'Appreciated' is nearer. Please take care.

Siobhan McHugh | 25 September 2009  

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